England's perfect antidote to sleaze

Hussain's entertainers restore game's tarnished image after devastating Cronje match-fixing scandal
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The Independent Online

Two huge events book-ended the 2000 cricket season which, as autumn approaches, will give it a distinct bitter-sweet flavour. The first, of course, was England's well-deserved victory over the West Indies for the first time in 31 years. But, if that is an achievement worthy of rejoicing, revelations of widespread corruption within the game remain a sober reminder that cricket, like other sports, has its dark side as well.

Two huge events book-ended the 2000 cricket season which, as autumn approaches, will give it a distinct bitter-sweet flavour. The first, of course, was England's well-deserved victory over the West Indies for the first time in 31 years. But, if that is an achievement worthy of rejoicing, revelations of widespread corruption within the game remain a sober reminder that cricket, like other sports, has its dark side as well.

In April, which now seems a decade ago, most of the cricket world listened in disbelief as police in New Delhi revealed that they had categoric evidence that South Africa's captain, Hansie Cronje, was involved in match-rigging. According to India's Central Bureau of Investigation, Cronje's part is just the tip of a very big dungheap.

Following Justice Malik Qayyum's report into match-fixing in Pakistan, which handed life bans to Salim Malik and Ata-ur-Rehman, the CBI is set to publish its own report at the end of September. Rumour has it that, along with the names of several prominent Indian Test cricketers, will be that of an England player, though sources like Scotland Yard deem this unlikely.

Cronje later confessed his involvement, by which time England's tussle with the West Indies was busy recapturing the hearts and minds of a public that had become increasingly alienated by the latest sleaze as well as the home side's lack of international success.

England, to the widespread appreciation of the country, went on to win the Tests 3-1, ending three decades of one-way traffic. The victory, in a low-scoring series that saw just 17 of the possible 25 days utilised, added to their earlier successes in the Test series against Zimbabwe and the one-day triangular tournament.

England's captain Nasser Hussain could not buy a run in any currency, but with coach Duncan Fletcher at his side England's stock has gradually risen under his leadership. Looking back at the main series of the summer key moments abound, though, with ball dominating bat as never before, most were by bowlers.

When batsmen did triumph, especially against those two fast bowling giants, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, it was generally to great acclaim. For their centuries at each of the other's home ground, Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart received lengthy standing ovations, as did the retiring Ambrose in his final Test at the Oval.

Yet, perhaps less obvious than those hundreds, or the four wickets Andy Caddick took in an over to seal that amazing two-day victory at Headingley, were the pair of forties scored by Atherton and Vaughan in the second innings at Lord's, after England had bombed the West Indies out for 54 in their second innings. Had the visitors gone two up at that stage, Hussain could easily have finished the season resigning the captaincy instead of lifting the Wisden Trophy to an adoring public.

The new-ball partnership of Caddick and Darren Gough reached a new apogee under central contracts which ensured both limbs and minds were fresh when the Tests arrived. A fit Gough was a captain's dream, and he nearly always came up with a wicket when asked. The winter tours to Pakistan and Sri Lanka offer severe challenges, so keeping Gough buoyant will be vital.

At county level it was a season of flux and change, though both Surrey and Gloucestershire continued where they left off last year. Indeed, as well as winning both Lord's finals again, the Gloucesters went one better by adding the Norwich Union National League to their trophy cabinet.

Their monopoly of the domestic one-day scene is based on tenacious fielding and disciplined bowling. Surrey, on the other hand, simply had the bowling attack best suited for four-day Championship cricket. It also happened to include a proven match-winner in Saqlain Mushtaq, whose cunning off-breaks will be gunning for England this winter.

According to most players, the split into two divisions made the Championship more competitive. Yet, overseas players aside, mediocrity was widespread, especially among the batsmen. Poor pitches, a surfeit of one-day cricket, and the use of a ball that ages more slowly than Sir Cliff Richard may partly explain the shortfall of runs, but, with five of the top 10 places in the averages going to Australians, those with good techniques prospered.

Two of the world's finest Test bowlers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, also tried their hands at being county pros. McGrath finished as the season's leading wicket-taker, his 80 victims costing just 13.21 runs apiece. Warne also punched his weight, despite losing the vice-captaincy of Australia following his mid-season brush with the "kiss and tell" section of the tabloid press.

With embarrassingly scant support from their team-mates, neither could lift their sides above their station, which is heartening for those who still believe cricket to be a team game. And yet, warts and all, it can only be hoped that their example will not have gone unnoticed by the younger players who crossed their paths.

Despite the national side's success, this is not the time for the England and Wales Cricket Board to lie back and think of England. With central contracts essentially removing the best home players from the mix, companies appear reticent to sponsor what is fast becoming seen as an ugly duckling tarted up by cosmetic surgery.

In fact, PPP healthcare, the current sponsors of the Championship, are thought to be reviewing their two-year opt-out clause. If they do jump ship, the ECB will be left seeking sponsors for three events: Test cricket, the Championship and the trophy previously known as NatWest.

Given that quantity still holds sway over quality, one way to ease the search might be to drop a competition. Either that or halve the number of matches in the Championship, replaying them if more than 180 overs is lost to the weather. That way, promotion and relegation might hinge on something more competitive than the contrived declarations we saw last week and sponsors might feel their money is going into something vital.

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